For over two years, I’ve had the pleasure of publicising Brighton’s Marlborough Theatre as their programme has evolved, producing seasons of performance, tours and festivals. Before then, artists under my watch occasionally passed through and as a Londoner, I’ve become increasingly in sync with Brighton’s artists, media and LGBTQI+ luminaries.
There are also historically, hungry local audiences. As a decidedly Queer destination, hotspot and comparative safe space, Brighton has ticked multiple boxes for decades. Its reputation grew as I became involved with LGBTQI+ nightlife and fundraising in the 1980s and 90s, plus the awareness of an unpretentious alternative to the Big Smoke, not so far away. Brighton’s salty mix of hedonism, sea air plus a sense of Queer empathy was seemingly embedded within the community: once clandestine and coded then later, visible, progressive and proud.
It was exciting then, to be asked to work with Queer The Pier at Brighton Museum, an exhibition curated by local LGBTQI+ community volunteers and co-produced by Queer Heritage South. In fact, certain exhibits seemed to bridge my past with this divisive present; vintage badges which defiantly adorned one’s jean, bomber or biker jacket for example. The badge collection in Queer The Pier, alongside magazines, flyers and literature serve as a bittersweet reminder of what was fought for and achieved, then the very real return of the reactionary far right, over 30 years later.
I marched against Section 28 in May 1988 alongside a multitude of friends and colleagues. Back then, as well as dressing up for weekly door duties at Heaven’s Pyramid night, I worked for a fashion designer, my working and social life spent to a large extent, in LGBTQI+ company. Items in the exhibition such as a gown donated by Brighton drag royalty Dave Lynn evoke flashbacks of Dave holding court at Heaven during his hilarious Tuesday night residencies. The contemporary club wear in neighbouring glass cases bring to mind Brighton’s nightlife legacy. In the 1990s and early millennial period I would mail dance music to DJs, Brighton’s Zap club providing an ideal setting to road test new tunes.
Queer The Pier, has been lovingly brought to life via a devoted crew of local volunteers and Queer historians plus those donating artefacts from private collections. One donor, Torsten H∅jer is a former colleague from the period when he wrote for an LGBTQI+ publication over a decade ago, during which time he introduced me to the late Peter Burton. Peter’s lengthy career as both music publicist in the 1970s for the likes of Rod Stewart and writer for seminal Gay titles such as the Brighton-based Spartacus, prompted a memory of Peter, Torsten and I enjoying drinks outside a pub near my home in Pimlico, when they visited London for the day from Brighton. Peter was an engaging raconteur and I was fascinated so it’s poignant that Peter’s trusted typewriter sits behind a glass case as part of Queer The Pier where his pioneering achievements as an out Gay journalist are acknowledged.
Peter was also one of a handful of influential Gay entrepreneurs involved with the music business. Closet doors remained firmly shut for the most part, despite homoeroticism selling art and artists to the mainstream.
Continuing to link past to present but this time seeking refuge in escapism, I should reflect upon my intrigue with all things carnivalesque. Brighton Palace Pier as a symbol of this exhibition conjures up the idea of visitors seeking mischief and perhaps, mysticism over a 200-year period. This is epitomised by items such as an 18th century carousel horse, once spun around for pleasure seekers to enjoy the ride. They may have then opted to risk gazing into the future via a ‘fortune telling’ booth. An early 20th century model has been sourced as well as other fairground ‘amusements’, suggesting a backdrop where outsiders and the transient could pitch up and assimilate.
As Brighton continues to enjoy its well-earned reputation as a town where Queer folk and their allies can claim ownership, I have only scratched the surface in this blog via memories, observations and coincidences. The exhibition also hosts blackmail letters and pieces pertaining to convictions, death sentences, illicit liaisons and banned artworks – timely reminders of oppression, the necessity of activism and celebrating one of the UK’s most cherished party towns, by the sea, on the dancefloor or at Queer The Pier.